Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Greatest Loss

I was listening to one of my favorite Broadway play's soundtrack just recently on a road trip. 'RENT' captured my heart many years ago for the social issues it addressed, and its message of love. For those that don't know, the writer and composer of the play, Jonathan Larson, age 36, died the morning of the debut of 'RENT' Off-Broadway. It's ironic to listen to the lyrics of the songs, knowing how this incredibly talented young man died of an aortic dissection, suddenly. He never got to see the immense success his show would go on to have, the social awareness he created, and the message of love so many of us took home.

In one of the songs, 'Seasons of Love', the lyrics talk about the span of  a year and say, "Remember the love, Measure you life in love. Seasons of love." This past year, and its four seasons, has been full of up's and down's no doubt. The loss of love, or what I thought was love. The loss of my rock, my grandfather. It made my previous loss seem so small.  I'll never forget that call. My mom rang me to say that Pop was unresponsive and the fire department was there working on him. The day I had dreaded since I was a kid was here. I drove frantically to my grandparent's little house, the one where my Pop fed me ice cream on the counter, and proceeded to feed all the great-grandkids in the same spot for many years. We have photos of me as a child, my brother's children,  and my own children, being spooned that sugary treat. A big smile on his face in every photo - from 1978 to 27 years later.  The house where we watched our beloved Clemson Tigers every Saturday. You'd find me on the couch in his, "man cave" and him in his chair, snacks on a TV tray for us both. He'd curse Clemson for a bad play but praise them for good ones. The man who taught me how to drive. The man who was happiest when the babies were over. The man who lived for his family. The man who was rarely without a smile and a kind word. And there he was, unresponsive, getting CPR, on the kitchen floor where just a foot to the left was the table where we had shared so many meals, Christmas dinners, birthdays, and just simple conversations. 

Being ex-medical, I knew it wasn't good. They had been attempting to revive him for almost an hour. Our Berea firemen were so good to us. They explained the procedure. I knew it. They'd work as long as they could, with their heart and soul, sweating and trying with all they had, as if it were their own grandpa, but he hadn't responded, and I knew that was the end for my sweet Pop. While he had 83 years on this earth, it wasn't enough for us. Had he lived to be 110, we would have begged for more year. Forever isn't long enough when you're blessed with someone like him. 

Now all that remains are the memories. Sometimes they're too painful to recall, although they're happy memories. You are reminded of the loss. The absence. Voicemails he left on my phone are now safely tucked away. His voice in real time. Leaving a message for one of my kids or telling me something he read in the paper. Some reminding me of the Clemson kickoff time for the next game. While I would give anything for that phone to ring and me to pick up and hear him, the voicemails are all i have,  a way of hearing him again, from the grave. He always ended them with, "Love you". I listened to them non-stop in the first couple of months after his death. To be honest, I can't listen to them right now. It just hurts too much. 

A day after his death, our Clemson Tigers played for the National Championship. A day we had been dreaming of for years. I sat in his chair alone, wearing his Clemson shirt and hats. 5 seconds left and we won. I cried just as hard as I did when I heard the news he had passed. What I wouldn't have given to live that moment with him. I put a National Champ shirt in his coffin. That moment was ours. I celebrated for us both. 

(Cherring on Clemson in 2016)

(National Championship one day after his death) 

(Pop's obituary the next day Clemson won the National Championship. Sometimes life is cruel) 

I have felt guilt for not wanting to think of him. It's not a lack of love, it's a lack of him being here. A painful reminder that he's gone. As for the grief, I am thankful for it. That means someone loved me unconditionally. Someone who had such a huge impact on my life from the day I was born. It means I loved and I was loved. My kids and my brother's kids were cherished pieces of his legacy. They were his life. His death devastated them. My son was an honorary pallbearer. He literally helped carry the man who carried him for years to his final resting place. 

Porch conversations 

My kids are eleven, ten, and six. They never knew a life without Pop. He would show up at my house just to see his, "babies". Yes, even out of the toddler stages, they all remained his babies.  My brother's kids, too. I am so thankful they will remember him. I will remember the moment I had to tell them that their beloved Pop was gone. It ripped my soul apart. They still cry to this day. But, I remind them that tears are just a reminder that they loved him and he the same. He would talk cars and Elvis with Mason or let the girls play, "spa", with him. He got hairstyles from the girls and he smiled through it all. As long as his, "babies", were happy. 

(Pop, Sara Rose, and Mason)

(Pop and his Taylor, his namesake) 

I spent the first few nights after his death with my Grandma. They had been married 65 years. Then, he was gone. Anyone who knew them as a couple would say being around them was fun. Non-stop banter and laugh-out-loud insults were commonplace for a couple who literally grew up together. I knew she would be okay alone, but I had to stay with her. I couldn't bare the thought of her all alone for the first time in her life. I slept in his bed, with his shirt on. I slept like a baby, surprisingly. It's funny how things, such as beds and clothes, make you feel closer to someone who has recently passed. I still wear his shirts to bed every night.  Pop and Grammy had two girls, one being my mom, and the other, my "other mother", my aunt. Pop always wanted a son. So, when my aunt was born, and he was told it was a girl, he hurled the baseball glove down the corridors of the hospital. One he got his hissy fit out of the way, he was partial to the daughters he had and the granddaughters who came later. He lived the life of having boys through my brother's son, Jake, and my own son, Mason. He had it all in his family.

(Pop and Grammy, 65 years later) 

(Aunt Angie, Pop, and my Mom) 

His funeral was fitting and beautiful. A man of faith. A man of good character who wouldn't hesitate to take the recently widowed food my grandma had prepared. He would have taken the shirt off his back for anyone who needed it, even if they were Gamecock fans! :)  He gave me blunt advice when I needed it, and saw the good in those who had done me and my children wrong, referencing the break up I mentioned earlier. He never saw the bad in people. Only the good. And that example is one I hope my kids and my niece and nephew carry with them their whole lives. 

(My babies saying a final goodbye to one of the few men who showed love and loyalty until the end) 

As Adele said, "They say that time's supposed to heal you, but I ain't done much healing". That's me six months in. To the day. I don't know that I ever want to heal. But, I know I want to show love to my family the way he did to us. Rest In Peace, Pop. I miss you more every day. 

Pop, your granddaughter plays this a lot. I'll see you again. Until then, my sweet memories will sustain us.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Death Of A Student

On January 4, 2016, I started a new, full-time job at Berea High School, my alma mater. It was really a dream job for me. Some teachers that taught me are still there and some of my former classmates are now teachers there. It was like going home again. I was hired as a full-time substitute, meaning I would go room to room as needed when someone was sick and the substitute job had not been filled.

On my first day, I was told that when nobody was out, or the substitute jobs had been filled, I would go to room 242 to be an aide. "You will assist Mrs Cloy with her students". Her class was full of freshman students who have learning challenges. It's a room I knew I would love.

Mrs Cloy was instantly welcoming. The students were a harder sell. They like routine, and a new person coming in mid-year would require some acclimation time. On my first day, I flopped into an empty desk next to a reddish blonde headed, lanky kid. He was wearing a Berea Baseball hoodie, big boots, and a big smile. It was a welcome sight amid the curious stares that covered the classroom. I guess that's the moment that Austin Stamey would claim his place in my heart as one of my favorites.

As time went on, the kids in 242 welcomed me as one of their own. The adopted my name, Ms. GiGi as opposed to Ms. McKelvey, a name that is dear to me and one I don't mind them calling me. A name my niece and nephew called me as babies. Mrs Cloy and I worked well together and I began forming bonds with each and every one of the kids. But, Austin was my first bond, and I never forgot that. It wasn't uncommon for him to lean over and tell me a joke or discuss the book, 'The Giver', we were reading everyday in class. He would often show me pictures of his beloved little sister, his mom, grandparents, or his slightly younger brother. His hand would shoot up every time Mrs. Cloy would ask a question or initiate discussion about the book the kids were so engrossed in. He wanted to learn. He took pride in his correct answers, and I took pride in his hard work. The last 10 minutes of class is free time, if they earned it. Austin often spent that chatting with me about random things and asking for a piece of gum he knew he would get. :)

Mrs. Cloy has a gift. She take kids with a wide array of challenges and needs, and finds a common ground for them to meet on. Nobody feels left behind or lost. Our class discussions are always lively and engrossing for the kids.  She handles them with both love and discipline, something these kids need and crave. Not to mention the right amount of quirkiness, which the kids love. In return, they love her fiercely. She has taught me so much in our time together and has inspired me just as much as she inspires her students on a daily basis.

In April, I took over a class downstairs in a time of need, which took me away from 242 in the afternoons. Still, I was lucky enough to spend most morning with the freshman. Before that, my afternoons upstairs was with our juniors and seniors, with the amazing Mrs. Miller taking over the freshman. Mrs. Miller is another Berea gem. She loves those kids and they love her in return. She has been an amazing compass for what an aide should be. Mr Marlatt, a Navy veteran, and amazing inspiration with a kind heart, rounded out our little corner of the school. We are like a little family up there.

The bonus in me moving downstairs in the afternoons was that I gained my own room, which meant I could open my doors for, "B Lunch", the second half of lunch break, to students. They'd come in with their food. We listened to XM Radio and watched funny videos. Every day, Austin was in there. In fact, I wrote him a pass for every day of the week so he could be sure to make it once the main doors closed from the cafeteria to the academic area. I wanted my room to be a place where any student felt welcome to hang out. While I sometimes had 20 kids in there, Austin and I talked the whole time for the most part.

He lost his step-father suddenly a couple of years ago. We talked about his still weighing grief. We talked about his baby sister, his brother and mom, and we talked about random things. We talked about his dreams for his future. We talked about life. He would point out the girl he had a huge crush on. He would tell me all about ROTC,  baseball, and proudly tell me of the climbing team he was a part of. I'll never forget the day he got to wear his fancy ROTC uniform to school for the first time. He felt so proud and looked so grown up compared to his sixteen years.

He would ask about my kids and my life each and every day. He was genuinely interested in my life away from school, and loved hearing of my travels and seeing the photos of the places I visit. He shared my photos on his Facebook page, telling me, " I want to go there one day". He talked of his faith and how that was a rock in his life. When the bell rang for 3rd block to begin, I always got a bear hug and a, "See you tomorrow, Ms. GiGi". On his last day of school, I got the same bear hug and him saying, "I am going to miss you this summer. I can't wait to see you next year". I still feel that hug. It's a memory I will cherish forever. He also left this sweet memory on my board. I normally don't take pics of notes students leave for me on my dry erase, but for some reason, I did, and I am so grateful.

At 5:31 A.M. on June 2nd, i was drying my hair. It was the last day of school for me. My iPhone notification went off. I looked to see an email from our amazing principal, Mr. Noel. The subject line was, "Student Death". My first thought was that our seniors has graduated the day before, and maybe something tragic had happened on the way to Senior Week at Myrtle Beach. As I opened the email, I saw, "Austin Stamey, asthma attack, cardiac arrest". I had to read the email three times for it to compute that it was actually Austin. My buddy. A numbness engulfed me that lasted until I walked into the school. When I first saw Mr Marlatt, the tears flowed. Our grief was palpable. Then, Mrs Cloy came in. Disbelief was setting back in. We had to break the news to Mrs. Miller, who had not read her email yet. We sat in Mrs. Cloy's room silent for a while, then the tears came.

His sweatshirt, which he wore every day, had been left in her class on his last day of school. He had said, "I will get it next year". I delivered it to his mom that same day. Even more amazing was what he had also left behind. Something the kids worked on, "Thank You", notes. He chose his mom. He forgot to take his home. And Mrs Cloy found it the day after he died.

As I walked up to Austin's house that day, I didn't know what to say. His mom had planned to come to the school to get his hoodie, unaware of the note from her son that she would receive. I offered to go get the items and she accepted. Her swollen eyes and look of shock made me insist. It's amazing how a piece of clothing, something she saw and washed every day, becomes a source of comfort to her. Then, the letter came. Austin's mom became overwhelmed with emotion. A letter from her son, at a time she needed it most. How that happened, I could never explain. But that letter was mean to be late to her. Her son, speaking in death, about how she had been his rock. He inadvertently left her a gift of comfort. A gift of love.

We had a candlelight vigil for Austin on the baseball field, a place he loved. A lot of young people showed up in spite of it being the first week of summer break. Their faces told their grief and loss. The funeral was the most emotional I have ever attended, yet such a testament to Austin and his loving heart, and his goofy side. He never met a stranger. I didn't feel like one on my first day in 242 because of him.

I think of him every day. I know I will miss him more as his seat will be empty on the first day of school. I know Mrs Cloy, Mrs. Miller, and Mr. Marlatt will feel the same void. We will have to talk to our kids about a sad reality that won't set in for them until the first day of school. Our kids are like family. They fight like siblings, but will protect each other fiercely. Austin's absence will forever change the dynamics of our corner of the school.

What do we learn from this? Maybe, that life is precious. We aren't invincible. We are blessed every day, even when time seem tough. Austin was a good young man. A gentleman.

I never want to go through losing a student again. You really do feel you have gained 20 children when you join a classroom. We spend more time with them we do our own kids. We know their strength and weaknesses, their fears, their past. As a mother, I want to nurture all of them. Because of that, his death hurts more. But, I gladly take that. Fly high, Austin. You will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Columbine: 'A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath Of Tragedy' Review - Jennifer McKelvey

Photo of Columbine High School
Courtesy of Jennifer McKelvey, February 2016

April 20, 1999 changed our world drastically. Two boys, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold, loaded up their cars with guns and pipe bombs, after months of careful planning, and went to Columbine High School. They had one mission, to kill as many classmates as possible. When they arrived at the school, they told one student to leave. And he did. The rest were sitting ducks.

They carried duffel bags into the school cafeteria which contained two, twenty pound propane tank bombs, and were set to explode at 11:17 AM, a time that the cafeteria would have been the most crowded. They then went to their respective cars, which offered a clear view of the cafeteria area, to watch as the bombs went off. Luckily, the propane tank bombs did not detonate, as hundreds of students in the cafeteria for lunch could have been killed.  From videos the boys made prior to the attack, they originally had planned to shoot any survivors or anyone trying to flee. Their cars both had explosives with timers which were set to detonate when they went back into the school. 

The very first 911 call in this mass murder had nothing to do directly with Columbine, but everything to do with Eric and Dylan's planning. A small, timed explosion in a field about three miles away from the high school was placed by the killers to divert police so the killers could have more time to make the body count higher. Back at the school, eyewitnesses recall seeing Eric and Dylan at the highest point on campus with a clear view of the school. They were dressed in trench coats and carrying duffel bags. One student heard Eric or Dylan yell, "GO, GO", and the carnage began. The shootings started at 11:19 AM outside. The shootings end at 12:08 with the suicide of Eric and Dylan. For 49 minutes, the killers took the lives of thirteen; including twelve students, and one teacher, wounded many, and traumatized all who were there that day. They also put an end to carefree school days as students knew them.

In the time since the shootings, very little has been said by the parents of the shooters. Both parents released statements through their lawyers the next day. Eric Harris's parents have remained mostly silent since. Dylan Klebold's mother began to speak out years after the killings. In 2009, ten years after the shootings, she offered a self-written piece to Oprah's magazine about the events of that day and the aftermath. You can read it here:

I have often wondered what the parents of Eric and Dylan endured in the days, months, and years in the aftermath of Columbine. Many were so quick to blame them almost immediately when it became known that the guilty ones had killed themselves. I never thought the parents deserved the harassment and death threats they received, but when the guilty ones die, the public goes on a witch hunt for those who knew them best, accusing them of everything under the sun. I always thought maybe they had missed signs, but now as a mother, I feel their pain more than ever.

Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter, Dylan Klebold (R).

When you become a parent, your life changes. You hope and dream for your child. You hope you aren't screwing it up. Parenting is tough. When your children are small, you instill the framework for what you hope will become the structure of their moral compass, their work ethic, accountability, and you hope that when you release them into the world, they contribute, not take away. All in all, we really never know if we've succeeded, in spite of our best efforts, until that child shows you in the decisions they make and the path they choose. In spite of honest, best efforts, many parents did it, "right", only to have their kids end up bad. 

When my kids do something bad, I hold them accountable. I explain the consequences, explain why it was wrong, and offer reasons why they should make a better decision in the future. Reading Sue Klebold's book, 'A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy', I saw she too did the same thing with both her boys, the youngest being Dylan Klebold. Dylan had a very normal and stable upbringing. He played baseball, he tinkered with old cars with his father, he was his mother's sidekick as a child. He was an exceptionally bright child. They were active in his life. He wasn't abused or abandoned. He was seemingly like every other kid in the neighborhood. Nothing seemed odd.

Sue and Dylan Klebold

As Dylan grew into a teen, he became more withdrawn, but nothing out of the ordinary. Most teenage boys want their privacy and also relish in the beginnings of independence. They make their own friends, not ones set up by mom as a playdate, they get their license, they get a car. It's a rite of passage when you get these freedoms. You test the waters as a young adult under the watchful eye of good parents. Dylan was no different.

Dylan and Eric became friends a few years before the massacre. Both boys had numerous other friends, a misconception in the aftermath of the tragedy. It was reported for years that they were loners, only having each other. This isn't true. They had mutual and individual friendships, enough of them to dispel the rumors that social isolation was a motivation for the killings.

Early on, it was clear that Eric was trouble. In 1997, he had an AOL profile, as well as a webpage, that grew increasingly violent, threatening towards students and teachers at Columbine. It also included specific threats against Brooks Brown, a friend of Dylan's. Dylan gave the website address to Brooks. Brooks's mother, concerned with what she saw, informed authorities. After viewing the website, which Eric stated he had explosives, a deputy wrote a draft affidavit asking for a search warrant of the Harris house, but never filed it. Missed red flag? In her book, Sue believes that maybe Dylan gave Brooks the web address in the hopes that Eric would be stopped.

Dylan Klebold and Brooks Brown at Columbine High School

Eric Harris AOL profile at the time of his death. 

Eric and Dylan were both arrested their junior year for breaking into a van and stealing electronic equipment. This was, no doubt, a wake up call for Sue and Tom Klebold. Dylan was ordered to complete  pre-trial intervention, which included classes and paying restitution. Eric was ordered the same, as well as to begin seeing a psychiatrist. Both boys were released from the program early and passed with rave reviews.

Dylan Klebold (L) and Eric Harris (R)

Eric and Dylan began working at Blackjack Pizza together, meeting some of the people who would eventually supply them with guns, not knowing of their plans. Senior year came. The plans were in full swing for the massacre, but to Sue and Tom, Dylan seemed to be on the upswing. They visited the University of Arizona weeks prior to the massacre, a place Dylan ultimately chose to attend for college. They looked at dorm rooms, made plans, and he even went to prom a few days before the massacre. Everything seemed normal from Sue's perspective.

Dylan Klebold, with his prom date.

When someone is going to commit a crime or kill themselves, they rarely give blaring signs that they intend to do so. The most dangerous ones stay silent until you find out when the event happens. This is what happened with Sue and Tom. Sue was at work about 25 miles away from home when she saw the blinking red light on her work phone. It was a frantic message from her husband, telling her to turn on the TV, that there had been a shooting at Columbine, and Dylan had already been mentioned as a shooter. Sue initially thought maybe Dylan was hurt or couldn't call her. When it became clear to her on the ride home that Dylan indeed may be a shooter, Sue did the opposite of what most Columbine parents did that day.

The parents of students at Columbine no doubt prayed for their children's safety from the gunmen in the school. Sue Klebold, on the other hand, prayed for her son to kill himself. Yes, to end his life, so he couldn't take any more innocent lives. Can you imagine, as a mother, to have to pray for your child to die? It sounds so foreign, but I think Sue began very quickly to connect the dots. Deep down, she knew Dylan was killing classmates as she sped home to Littleton, CO.

In her book, she gives insight into what happened when she arrived home. Cops, then a bomb squad took over her home. They were only allowed to stand in the driveway as investigators executed a search warrant on her home. They found no explosives.

Klebold home

They had to escape to somewhere safe, as the press and the masses were hunting them down. They settled in with extended family for a while. She tells of seeing Dylan's body, dressed in a hospital gown, her final goodbye. They chose cremation for Dylan, as they knew his grave would be vandalized on a regular basis. She stated that her older son, Byron, didn't feel Dylan looked like himself at the viewing. That helped all of them in that moment. Eric and Dylan both had killed themselves by a gunshot wound to the head. Eric's body sustained the most damage. While their suicide photos are readily available, I have chosen to not post them here. While what they did was senseless and evil, the photos are extremely graphic, and most importantly, I do not condone suicide regardless of the circumstance.

In the months after the massacre, Sue was lost and grieving alone for the most part. Her husband was in the throws of grief, no doubt, but a mother's grief is different I would imagine. Not more, but different. Answers were few for a long time. After some time had passed, the families were able to view the, 'Basement Tapes'. The tapes were over four hours long.  These tapes were the thing she needed to help with her being able to understand that her son, who she thought she knew, was a stranger to her. He was filled with rage. He used racial slurs, he used intense profanity and radiated hate. All of these things she and her husband had taught against. Yet, it seemed so natural to Dylan. The last tape is when the boys are heading out the door to unleash death and destruction upon kids sitting in a high school on what would normally be a standard day at Columbine had Eric and Dylan not been filled with the need to kill. The, 'Basement Tapes' largely never made it past the police. There were a few snippets and transcripts released, but a court order sealing the tapes made them pretty much inaccessible for the general public. The tapes were destroyed in 2011, along with other evidence from the shootings, at the discretion of the sheriff with the support of the families; the shooters, and the victims. They feared it may inspire copycats and bring raw pain back to the surface, both potentially disastrous and simply unnecessary. As far as we know, all copies are gone.

Dylan Klebold, seen in, 'The Basement Tapes'. 

After watching the tapes, Sue felt Dylan lied to her. He had successfully fooled her. And, she realized that he wanted to participate. Until then, Sue had a lot of suspicion that Eric took advantage of Dylan, perhaps even brainwashing him. That theory was dispelled by the tapes. She does maintain that Eric's homicidal desires were a vessel for a suicidal Dylan. In his journals, Dylan talked about being depressed, had self medicated with St. John's Wart, a natural remedy commonly used for depression. Sue felt heartbroken when she discovered the pill bottle after his death, knowing Dylan was trying to get out of his depression alone. He talked about wanting to find love but he thought he never would. Eric's journals were filled with vile fantasies about rape and murder. Sue acknowledges that Dylan killed classmates out of cold blood, but, she feels in her heart he would have never done so without Eric. Dylan wanted to die and killing students in the process was something he chose to do in order to take his own life in the library that day giving him a legitimate reason to do so.

Although it took her many years, Sue is now very active with suicide prevention and has close friendships she has established by going to survivors of suicide meetings in Colorado.  Regardless of what her son did to others, he also took his own life, a loss that any parent would feel. In the process, the massacre's aftershocks proved to be too much for Dylan's parents, and they quietly divorced recently. Not much is said about Dylan's older brother, Byron.

Sue seems to have found her new self. A mother who still loves and grieves for her son, a mass murderer, who changed the world for the worse on April 20, 1999. Much criticism for Sue has reared it's ugly head since the release of her book and accompanying book tour. I have to say that I think the, "outrage", is displaced now more than ever. Families of the victims are speaking out, berating her for the book. While I sympathize and cannot fathom their loss and pain, sixteen years on, I have to say, their blaming Sue Klebold is not well placed.

I am sure many people would love to, and probably silently do, point out our shortcomings as parents. The bottom line is that we cannot control what out children do to an extent. As small children, we have the most control over what they can and cannot do, yet they seem to trip up and embarrass us or disappoint us. We love them through it all. While I am close, but not quite the parent of a teen, I know what awaits. The constant worry, the distance that is caused by their sudden independence and figuring themselves out, and their friends we do not care for. At what point do we set our kids free to figure it out on their own? At what point do we know if we are raising mass murderers? We hope never. Statistically, we are good. Our chances of raising a killer are small. Nobody reading this would even think that one day, they could be in Sue Klebold's shoes. I feel for her. I really do. At the end of the day, no matter what your kids, do, you love them. Sue is no different, only she has a much bigger elephant in the room.

Sue Klebold,

I highly recommend, 'A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy'. Sue gives us not only a glimpse into raising one of the participants in the worst school shootings in history, but also the grief, confusion, and public witch hunt that, to this day, continues. You may find some of yourself in Sue, or Tom Klebold. A loving parent who dedicates their lives to raising good kids.

I feel the pain of the victims families. They lost an innocent child on that fateful April day. We all send our kids off to school with the comfort that they're safe. On that day, and many more school shootings since, we've been reminded that isn't always the case. We gamble when we let our children out of our sight, yet we cannot follow them everywhere. All we can do is hope and pray that they're not the victim of a senseless tragedy, or God forbid, the one who causes so much pain. Be careful not to judge Sue Klebold. Just because her child was half the cause of so much pain doesn't make her immune to pain herself. Her eyes scream of disbelief and grief after all this time. Will she ever get over all of this? No. But, if she can educate as to the warning signs that she learned in retrospect, maybe many of these terrible breaking news event be prevented. Feel her pain as well as the pain of the parents who lost their children, or spouse, that day.

Friday, October 2, 2015

'The Martian' Movie Review

I got an alert on my phone that there was an advanced screening of, 'The Martian' in my city last night. My 8-year-old son and I have watched the trailer more times than I can count and we've counted the days until the release. He's a curious kid. He's the kind that always says, "I have a question", followed by me usually being floored at what comes out of his mouth, which sometimes leaves me to Google secretly to find and answer. I still want him to think Mom knows everything. I debated whether an 8:00 PM showing on a school night was a good idea since the movie start time is usually his bedtime. I needed to spend time with him, just the two of us, so I decided to be a "cool mom", and take him. (He got up great today, talking non-stop about the movie). 

The movie doesn't waste any time in grabbing your attention. Within the first 7 minutes, we are in the thick of it. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, and astronaut, and botanist, who is on the red planet for Ares Mission 3. He and his team are gathering samples to take back to earth when a fierce solar storm hits. Forced to abort their mission and get off the planet, Mark is lost in the storm on the way back to the spacecraft. They're forced to leave him, assuming he is dead. And, we have our plot. 

Mark didn't die in the storm. In fact, this is not a story of a man who is severely injured and just waiting for a ride home. This is the story of a man who has amazing skills and wit, and is determined to not let the harsh environment consume him. He becomes the most bad ass problem solver I've seen on screen in years. He begins a video log, should he die, for whoever may visit the red planet in years to come, which details his extraordinary wits and brilliant scientific rigging to try and survive. 

He has a limited supply of food for a mission that should have lasted far less than the time it will take to rescue him or send supplies, oh, and not to mention he has no way to contact NASA to let them know he is alive. He eventually makes contact with NASA and the brainstorming begins on how to bring him home. 

I won't dive into specifics from this point forward, as I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone past what the trailer shows. The story has its moments of action, but I love how this movie relies on science to propel the storyline. You can go see plenty of non-stop action movies. They're a dime a dozen. This movie is almost a four-year college degree in science. And, I loved that for my son. As he listened to theories and concepts, some of which he couldn't wrap his head around. He was so excited about the theme of the movie, and constantly asked me questions that I couldn't Google as we sat inside the theater. It ignited the part of his brain that has the need to know. We have a list of questions that we will Google together when he gets home from school today. My kid left this movie wanting to know more about Mars and Botany. That was worth the price of admission alone. 

For parents, the question is, do you take your kids to see this movie? From a ratings point of view, it is PG-13. It likely got the rating due to the F-word being said several times as well as a full backside nude shot of Matt Damon (or a body double). I like to think it was Matt Damon himself. Hey, he's not bad to look at, and damn if he hasn't aged well, if at all, since we first saw him in 'Good Will Hunting'. There are a couple of intense scenes full of suspense and also a graphic scene showing Mark taking care of an abdominal injury he sustains in the first few minutes of the movie.  Overall, I think if your child or children are interested in science, space travel, and planets, there's no reason to not take them to see this creative and inspiring movie. Just be sure your kids aren't ones to repeat a few curse words. I think you'll be good to go. 

Matt Damon gives, what I think, is his best performance since, 'Good Will Hunting'. His acting skills are like a fine wine that gets better with age. He nails the role. The supporting cast is perfect. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA. He perfectly captures the right mix of a man who supports the mission to bring him home with the hesitation of not wanting to have bad press should more people die in doing so. 

If you love disco music, or love to hate disco music, you will enjoy a little running joke in the movie. I'll let you find out how it incorporates in. I'll just say that ABBA's, 'Waterloo', is perfectly placed in a pretty awesome scene. 

The movie is beautifully shot and I highly recommend seeing the 3-D version if you can. You will feel as if you are on Mars along with Mark. The landscape shots are breathtaking. 

The movie left me thinking about the space program and how ironic we have learned just this week that there is evidence of water on Mars. Will we ever see a manned mission to the red planet in our lifetime? My son asked me that last night on the ride home. I told him in his lifetime, I think so. Overall, I think you will leave the movie theater feeling like you actually paid your hard earned money to be entertained from the first to the last second of the movie. For me, it was by far the best film I have seen in years. Go see, 'The Martian', and take your science loving children with you!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

'Straight Outta Compton' Review:

While in New York City this weekend, I took in a showing of 'Straight Outta Compton'. I went in thinking it was a documentary, but quickly realized it was a drama. I wasn't disappointed for long. We were transported back to Compton, California in the late 1980's when five black men changed the music industry with reality, or "gangsta" rap. It also took me back to the time I got my first copy of "Straight Outta Compton" in 1988.

I was clothes shopping with my Mom at a smaller mall in our town. We always stopped by a little music store called Camelot Music. She browsed the Barry Manilow section. I had heard a few N.W.A. songs at a friend's house playing in the background. When I saw the cassette staring me in the face, I figured I would try to convince my mom to buy me a copy. I grabbed the tape and walked over to her. I asked if I could get it. She looked at the front of the cassette and asked me what it was. I fumbled as I told her they were a new R&B group and everyone was listening to them. My mom, a trusting woman, took my word and said, "Yes". As we approached the register, the 16-year-old working reminded my mom that the music had explicit lyrics. She was half listening and nodded. They rang us up and we went home.

I ran straight to my room, put fresh batteries in my walkman, and hit the play button. "You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge ... Straight Outta Compton". Now, picture an 80 pound white girl with hair that stood up about 6" in a poof with bangs, (thank you Aqua Net), chicken legs, jelly shoes, jean shorts, and an Oakley windbreaker on head bobbing and feeling like a bad ass. I rewound that song about 50 times before I had it memorized. Debbie Gibson seemed so childish all of a sudden.

I took my walkman to school, as it had just started that week. During lunch, I passed the walkman around my lunch table, letting my friends hear the hard lyrics flowing through the crappy headset. Their eyes lit up with a mixture of awe and shock. I wore that tape out within a couple of months. I read the reviews and saw the news on TV blasting the album as glorifying violence and some dismissed it as garbage, dumb street kids who were ignorant to reality so they resort to profanity and violence. I often laugh at the hypocrisy of how we can sit in a theater and watch tons of violence play out in front of our eyes, police being shot, drugs being used, women being beaten, and walk away feeling entertained, while N.W.A. was labeled as "The World's Most Dangerous Group" for putting these things into song.  Of course, the ones who labeled it as such were men who wore 3-piece suits and worked in a high rise who had never once been profiled in their life unless it was for a magazine piece on how they were the best music critic in the business.

I'll never forget a few years later, when I had my first convertible with a tape deck. I was listening to "F- the Police" at a red light when a cop pulled up beside me. I immediately turned it down and just stared straight ahead. I glanced over to see him chuckling. Maybe it was my reaction or maybe it was the white girl with her hair pulled into a ponytail in a car daddy bought her blasting the song. I was the last person on earth who would ever have a need to say, "F- the Police". (I love the police. They keep me and my kids safe). Just wanted to put that out there.

I think the 'Straight Outta Compton' album was more of a social commentary of a life most of us can't imagine. When we were kids, most of us weren't stopped by police for walking down the street or standing in a group. These guys were. They were around gangs, they were around drugs, and they stepped away from that and made a name for themselves rapping the harsh truths of life in Compton and every other "hood" in America. I find it funny that the album had its strongest sales in suburbia. 80% of the sales came from people who had no real clue what the lyrics really meant. But it was catchy, and we all felt a little tougher listening to it. We were getting our street smarts from a cassette tape.

The movie itself was amazing. I wish there was more back story into the individual lives of the members of N.W.A, but the movie focused on how they came to be as a unit. And, if you have seen it, you will know what I mean when I say I was totally confused for 15 minutes into the movie about how they had Ice Cube looking like a teenager again. A quick Google search told me that Ice Cube in the movie was portrayed by none other than his own son, who worked for two years, taking acting classes, and who had to audition many times to land the role playing his dad. Ice Cube himself said that if a better "Cube" had come along, they would have went with him. That's how important it was to get this movie right to the members of the group.

N.W.A was served with a letter from the FBI who scolded them for encouraging violence against law enforcement and the group often found it hard to get security for their shows. They quickly had disputes over royalties and leadership of the group. In the movie, we see many familiar faces, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight, 2Pac, and more. We are reminded of the rap greats that came to be because of N.W.A. In the end, they went their separate ways. Ice Cube became a phenomenal solo artist, movie writer, and actor. Dre became a bajillionaire with Beats, continued rapping, and created his own label which discovered Eminem. We all know that Eazy-E, "The Godfather of Gangster Rap", sadly died of AIDS in 1995.

As a whole, the movie is an intriguing look into how rap music as we know it came to be. I've heard it said that the release of the movie encourages violence against police. I say that's ridiculous. The movie in no way shows any brutality to the police. These songs were out long before the epidemic of police murders that we have today. The story was written well before that. Is it uncomfortable for us because we are reminded of the few bad seeds that wear blue and are depicted very briefly in this movie? Maybe. We bond with the characters, so it is hard for us to see them be profiled when we know they're not doing anything that would warrant nothing more than a nod and a smile from an officer. In Compton and other inner cities in the country, this is every day life. Most of us have no clue what it's like to grow up in gang infested neighborhoods, in poverty, and seen as less than human.

I highly recommend the movie to anyone who grew up listening to the early days of rap. The story is about building something, rising above the stigma and the assumptions, and making an impact in the music world.

There's a sequel being filmed right now, "Dogg Pound 4 Life" which focuses on Death Row Records.

Until then, I'll leave you with two words:

"By Felicia"

Monday, July 20, 2015

Open Letter To Dylann Roof


It may seem kind of silly to write an open letter to you. You are in solitary confinement. You'll never read this. But maybe somebody who has the same warped thinking as you will. Maybe they won't. Maybe this is just a heartbroken South Carolinian getting it out. I didn't know any of the victims of the mass shooting. I don't know their families or friends. I've been to Charleston countless times. I love my home state of South Carolina. I've never seen such love as I have in the couple of weeks since your "mission". Your plan backfired. You wanted to start a race war. You've reminded us that were are one race, the human race. And the outpouring of love and support our state has seen over the last week has been overwhelming. Sometimes, tragedy inspires beauty. And South Carolina has not allowed your mission of hate to divide us. It has united us.

When you walked through the doors of Mother Emmanuel, a predominantly black church, they didn't look at you, an awkward looking white boy, an outsider. They welcomed you inside as one of them, to escape the sometimes cruel world outside those doors, to find hope in a world of hatred and sadness. You said you almost didn't go through with your plan, as they were so nice to you. Instead, you brought the cruel world that they prayed for inside that church. You took advantage of kindness. In a Snapchat taken just before your rampage, we can see the very members you shot, smiling, totally comfortable in your presence, yet unknowingly sitting in the midst of a cold blooded killer. That video is one I could only watch once, as I saw a glimpse of you, sitting amongst them, as they carried on their Bible study with you in their midst, in their eyes, an equal, moments before you coldly took their lives.

In spite of the warm welcome and gracious people who thought they may be helping you along in life, you saw them as less than equal. You took a gun from your backpack and decided to go through with your plan. You shot many rounds, killing nine and injuring others, and forever changing the lives of the many who knew and loved those lost souls. A six-year-old "played dead" to avoid your bullets. Someone asked you to please stop. You didn't. You ran out of bullets. You planned to end your life. When you realized you were one bullet short to do that, you left. You left a trail of death behind you, and you also left a sobering reminder that hate is alive and well.

For the most part, there doesn't seem to be anyone or anything to blame other than yourself. You used the internet to find like minded idiots such as yourself to fuel your hatred. Rumor has it, it all began when a girl you had a crush on chose a black man to date instead of you. There doesn't seem to be the mental illness defense that many other mass murdering cowards use to try and justify their actions of  evil. I am glad you didn't get the chance to kill yourself. I am glad you will sit in a jail cell. A scrawny kid who isn't such a big threat to those around you on the inside as you were to others on the outside. You will sit through a trial. You will hear from the victims families, the injured. You will see graphic photos of the death you caused. You will be held accountable for taking nine beautiful lives who were showing you love and compassion.

The scariest part of it all is that people like you still exist in our world. I hope and pray that my loved ones never happen to be in the right place at the wrong time, yes, I said right place. In the last 3 years, you and James Holmes went into everyday, normal places, and took many lives. He chose a movie theater on opening night of a highly anticipated midnight release. You chose a house of God. Are we safe anywhere anymore? Maybe not.

I'll never forget being in New York City on the subway alone after midnight a few years ago. I missed my stop and ended up in Harlem. When I saw the sign in the station, my heart sank. I had heard nothing but bad things about Harlem and the people who lived there. But, I had no choice but to keep going up the stairs and out. It was dark. There was a convenience store right across from the stop. I could see four black men under the streetlight. I hesitated, but I walked over to them and explained I was lost. One guy laughed, "Yeah, that's an understatement". They all burst out laughing. Then, another gentleman in their group asked where I needed to be. I told them the station I needed to stop at. They gave me directions. And then, wait for it, they walked me to the entrance of the subway station to make sure I stayed safe. I thanked them and they told me to be on high alert since it was late and I was alone. In my gut, I felt terrible for the moment of hesitation I had. I assumed. I was wrong. Beautiful lesson learned for me.

Love will always outweigh the hatred in our world. While I may not move mountains in changing the world, I can make the biggest difference I have the chance to make right here in my own home as I raise my three beautiful children. I have always taught them that race, religion, and color come in many forms and we're all equal. My oldest kids have learned about segregation and the Civil Rights era from me and at school. They both think that time in history was unjust. In their little hearts, they don't see any difference in themselves, their friends who are black, their Japanese friends, or friends with disabilities. People are people. I hope that they will carry that with them their entire lives, passing that down to their own children one day.

In time, we won't remember you. We will remember and honor the lives you took. We will also remember how our state became one under such tragic circumstances. We will tuck our kids in every night and hope they do not turn from the innocent souls they are into one filled with hatred, or ever encounter a soul who is. Will racism ever go away. No. But, those of us who think racism and violence is pointless and full of heartache outnumber people like you. Too bad you didn't have a TV in your cell to see the thousands who gathered on the bridge in Charleston; black, white, red, yellow, immigrants, every ethnicity you could imagine. You would not have only seen that your race war was a failure, you would have seen the tears from all walks of life were the same transparent tears we all cry in times of sadness. United in grief. Determined to not let you "win".

I am so proud of my state. I stood in line to get t-shirts for my family to honor the dead. I stood in line with people from all over the color spectrum. Poor, rich, middle of the road. None of that mattered. We were all there to pay respect to those who died at the hands of a heartless coward. Their deaths are not in vain.

I took my kids to the site of the shooting. We stood in awe of the outpouring of love in the form of letters, cards, pictures, flowers, and the friendly and united conversation. My son, who is eight, asked me quite loudly, "Mom, how do I honor the ones who died?". A young black man overheard him, bent down, put his hand on my son's shoulder, and said, "You already have, little man". The young man had tears in his eyes. He gives me hope for our future and maybe my own son gave him some hope, too.

I asked my kids in front of the church what they hoped would come from this, and what they wanted to see in their future. This is what they agreed on: "Peace. For everyone to get along and love each other". Then, my son said, "Let's take a picture holding up a peace sign". While their dream my never fully be a reality, may they go into this world with that attitude and be a part of the solution.

May we never forget the Charleston nine. May we never forget their last lesson they taught all of us on earth - to love without hesitation. It sadly cost them their life, but we've all heard the phrase, "What would Jesus do?". And they did. They chose love. To open their doors to someone seemingly in need. You took advantage of that. May they rest in peace.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Flying The Friendly Skies?

In the last six months, I have traveled a lot. I have spent countless hours in a terminal watching my flight delay time increase minute to minute knowing my connection is shot. I've had flights cancelled ten minutes before boarding.  I've stood in long security lines only to have my boobs frisked, and they didn't even have the decency to buy me a drink first. I've dealt with  grumpy airport staff who give off the vibe that they would rather be having a root canal than check the validity of your driver's license. I've shared the airport with outright rude passengers that make me wonder how people can be so miserable all the time. I guess they get their frustration out IN the airport and I am doing it here. I've had flight attendants who gave me the death stare because I asked for one more creamer for my coffee.

(The all to familiar notification on my phone when traveling)

(The worst thing you can see while waiting in the terminal to board) 

Don't get me wrong, I have had some amazingly fun times on the pressurized metal tubes and have met some really cool people. I sat next to DMX on a flight from Washington, DC to Greenville, SC (my hometown). I had a seatmate who is the drummer for Edwin McCain, (I'm looking at you, Tez). I've had flight attendants who made my trip so much fun with their cheery attitude and wanting to make the flight fun for all. I've had pilots who were intrigued with my Google Glass and were happy to try them on and snap a cool picture for my 6-year-old son. Yes, nice people are all around, too.

(My seat mate, DMX) 
(My favorite seat mate, Tez Sherard, Edwin McCain's drummer)

A good or bad seat mate can make or break your flight. I have had both. The good seat mate is someone you can engage in a fun conversation with and make your flight fly by. I talk a lot but I always read the people I am sitting next to. If they say a quick, "Hello", and quickly put their ear buds in, I pop my Beats on my head and get lost in iTunes. We say, "Goodbye", at landing, and that's that. Some talk your ear off non-stop as you look at your lonely headphones and wonder, would it be incredibly rude to just put them on, close your eyes, and tilt your head back. 

I would have to say that the worst seat mate is the one with no regard for your comfort during your time sitting 4 inches away from them for hours. By this, I mean the people whose breath smell like they ate a whole onion directly prior to boarding. Or, the ones who spent the hour before boarding at the bar downing Jack Daniels. It costs $1.54 to buy some breath mints at the Hudson News that's in every airport across the country. And, don't forget to shower before you fly or at least put some deodorant on. I sat next to a guy who was very nice looking, but smelled as if he had just spent a year in the desert in the middle of summer. I literally had to spray breath spray on my finger and rub it under my nose.  

Moving away from the people you share your travel experiences with and moving on to the airlines themselves. What happened, airline industry? I remember when flying was a pleasure. It was something people looked forward to just as much as the destination they were going to. You got served with a hot meal that you wouldn't eat if  you were on the ground, but in the air, it may as well be a $300 a head meal in a fine dining institute. Don't even act like you didn't get excited when you saw the food cart come rolling down the aisle. Now, you pay $8 for packaged crackers, some trail mix, and a piece of chocolate.

Speaking of money, flying is nothing short of highway robbery. Yes, I know some will say I should drive or take a Greyhound, but those people clearly haven't flown lately. First your fare will be ridiculous and sometimes it makes no sense. For example, I needed to fly to Philadelphia. The choices were Greenville to Philadelphia, $398 & Greenville, SC to NYC via Philadelphia, $220. I thought  I would one-over the airline. I decided to book the Greenville to NYC via Philly and just hop off in Philadelphia. NYC was where I would end up and fly out of, but I needed to go to Philly first. I hopped off the plane and smiled as I knew I had saved over $100. However, the day I was to leave from NYC to come home, I got this message as I checked in:

It said my reservation was, "Out of sync" and I needed to call the airlines. I did so and was floored in the process. Apparently, hopping off your flight is considered abandoning your itinerary. The result? A $200 change fee and the difference in fare, which is astronomical the day of. Well played, US Airways, well played. Lesson learned.

Baggage fees will eat you alive. When I first started traveling to NYC last year, I brought two check-in bags for a 3 day trip each time. Hey, I am a woman. I prepare for the worst. After a few months of almost having to take out a 2nd mortgage on my house, I downsized to one.  $60 each way adds up fast. Now, I am the master of the carry on bag.

An eye opening experience came to me two weeks ago. My 2-year-old came down with a nasty stomach bug on a Tuesday. I added it up and figured I would be full blown sick by that Thursday night and unable to fly to Colorado that Friday. My prediction came true. I called the airline Friday morning explaining that I was vomiting like a fraternity brother and I wanted to do the responsible thing and travel at another time. I didn't think it was fair to be actively vomiting on a booked flight with over 200 people, exposing them all to the incapacitating illness that would likely ruin their vacation. Us Airways informed me that I could cancel, but I would have to pay the $200 change fee to re-book my flight at a later date and any change in fares. I protested in between pukes. I told the agent I would be glad to bring a huge garbage bag to the terminal with me and apologize for exposing everyone to my illness as we boarded. US Air didn't flinch. They were more than ready to infect the entire airplane to collect $200 from me. I decided to not be selfish and fly sick, so I stayed home. I will owe them $200 to re-book in addition to the over $500 in fares I paid for when I was healthy.

Will airlines get any better? I don't think so. The pilots and flight attendants hands are tied. I don't blame them for the conditions on board the aircraft. You get a free drink on all flights and that's about it. The planes are typically nasty for the most part and they're are all pretty much run down. I ripped my new jacket and scratched my arm on this broken armrest which US Air didn't feel responsible for. Thank god I didn't get Teatnus:

I could go on and on about the pitfalls of airports and flying, but that would require a book deal and about 1,000 pages to play with. I guess when it comes down to it, when your wheels touch the ground at your destination, the hassle, and the empty wallet is of little concern. I've had a blast traveling. I've met amazing people, seen fantastic concerts, and made memories that will last me a lifetime.

 (Neil Young at Carnegie Hall - amazing show!)
 (Allie Mills, mom from 'The Wonder Years' at a subway station on Upper West Side) 

 (Cyndi Lauper concert in Englewood, NJ) 

(Nellie Furtado and I after Cyndi Lauper and Friends concert, NYC) 

(P!nk at Barclay's Center, Brooklyn)

(This view may just be worth all the money and hassle)